SINCE 1759

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From the Editorial Board
War At Any Price

A Senate committee produced the kind of report we should have had at least four years ago—on the true costs of the war, including interest payments on the borrowed money financing the follies, the $16,500 it’s cost the average American family of four from 2002 to 2008, the $36,900 it’ll cost from 2002 to 2017.

But the major media have mostly ignored the report. It's as if just enough spinning from the Bush administration wards off the kind of critical examinations we need most: if a report is produced in Congress but no major media are willing to note it, has it really been written?

From the editorial board:

Officially, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is $609 billion. President Bush has asked for an additional $195 billion for the current year, which Congress, Senate feints aside, is certain to approve. By the time he leaves office, and including interest payments on the entirely borrowed money, George W. Bush will have spent more than $1 trillion on the two wars—more than the costs of the Korean and Vietnam wars combined.

That’s not the worst of it. This is: That $1 trillion figure only reflects direct war costs plus interest. It’s deceptively understated. As with any war, numerous other costs heavily burden the societies that fight them. Wars impose enormous economic and social costs, none of which the Bush administration ever mentions. This, after all, is the president who in 2002 projected total Iraq war costs at around $60 billion.

Direct appropriations for the wars are literally just half the story. When money is borrowed, especially on such a massive scale, every dollar the government uses to pay for war is a dollar removed from productive private-sector investment by American businesses—the private sector the Bush administration extols in public only to undermine it in policy. Reduced investment means reduced productivity in the long term. Productivity is the engine of growth. Without it, the economy regresses. Since Bush took office, the national debt has grown by $3.38 trillion, or 59 percent, more (in dollars) than under any president in history. Despite historically low interest rates, interest payments on the debt in Bush’s first six years added up to $1.1 trillion.

Worse, much of government borrowing this decade is from two sources: Your Social Security retirement money and foreigners. For now, both the Social Security trust fund and foreigners have more to give. Both, for different reasons, will run out—the trust fund because Congress and the president refuse to reform the system to take care of future generations of retirees, foreigners because at some point the American economy’s monstrous debt will make it less attractive for investors, who’ll look for opportunities elsewhere. Remove those two sources of money even partially, and the American economy will be severely impoverished, having to make up the difference from its own, by-then considerably depleted, resources.

Other war costs piling up since 2002, and multiplying in future years, are from the lost productivity of dead and wounded soldiers, the costs of caring for the survivors, the future expansion of the military to replenish what it has lost, continued economic disruptions from deployments of Reserves and increased oil costs from Middle East instability. Add that to interest costs, and the Joint Economic Committee’s estimate of $2.8 trillion in war costs through 2013, even if troops are reduced to 55,000, sounds conservative.

Republican senators immediately attacked the report for being alarmist and inaccurate. But remember what happened to Lawrence Lindsey, the White House economic adviser at the time, who predicted in 2002 that a war in Iraq would cost $200 billion. Bush summarily fired him for making that remark, and administration talking heads, like the White House director of the Office of Management and Budget and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, corrected Lindsey with the mythical $50 billion to $60 billion totals.

Critics of the reports are quibbling over its methods because the larger picture is such an indictment of Bush’s wars, and what, when all costs are included, they could have paid for in the kind of investments that improve the lives of Americans: One day’s war costs, according to the report, could pay for 9,300 teachers for a whole year, or 14,200 police officers, or 163,700 college Pell Grants, or tuition for 58,000 Head Start children or health insurance for 513,000 children.

Instead, it’s another day, another $432 million—for what, Iraq democracy? Certainly not Osama dead or alive.

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